After a few years of relative calm, the battle between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian factions at UC Berkeley has erupted once again, and this time the administration has chosen to weigh in.
The latest skirmish started last month when the student group Bears for Palestine erected a display in its office space that included photos of Palestinians convicted of terrorist acts that claimed the lives of Israeli civilians. Understandably disturbed, Jewish students sought to have the display removed via a resolution before a committee of the student senate. That Feb. 3 gathering broke down in acrimony. One side held up signs that labeled Israel an apartheid state. One Jewish student was shoved; another held a sign that read “Your display glorifying Jew-killers makes you complicit.”
The vote had to be postponed due to the fracas. At a follow-up meeting a week later, the student leaders voted against a watered-down resolution to condemn the display. Making things worse, one Jewish student spoke up at that meeting, saying he wished to “eliminate … Palestinians from the world.” Initially, Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ issued a statement indicating sympathy for the Jewish students, while supporting the First Amendment rights of the Palestinian students.
But the story went viral. Public pressure ramped up, and this week, Christ issued two lengthy and rather sternly worded letters to both sides. She said she was “deeply troubled” by the tone of the discourse, and reaffirmed her commitment to both free speech and keeping the campus a safe space. But she also condemned the display elevating terrorists as “an affront to our Principles of Community.”
That’s where the foolish comment about “eliminating” Palestinians comes in. This allowed Christ to condemn both sides, decrying the Jewish student’s statement for creating “fear and safety concerns among our Palestinian and Muslim communities.”
The words themselves are repugnant. But they also impeded the Jewish students’ collective efforts to seize the high moral ground in this dispute.
Though we regret seeing yet another outbreak of mutual contempt between the two sides, we applaud the chancellor for intervening. In addition to speaking out, she is offering students training sessions in conflict resolution, among other steps going forward.
We should also take a deep breath and remind ourselves that Jewish life at Cal has made great strides in recent years, with multiple Jewish student groups, Hillel, Chabad and the Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies all thriving. We do not need to hit the panic button at UC Berkeley.
Meanwhile, we will keep our eye on further developments, hoping that dialogue and civility can somehow become watchwords on campus.